History of heartbreak: Pain, not just gain, shadows Ohio State program

Rob Oller
Buckeye Xtra

Editor's note:

How did Ohio State football become a Buckeye Nation of true believers? In a 14-part series, we explore aspects that shaped OSU's evolution from Saturday afternoon diversion to near-religious experience.

Today: Heartbreak

Viewed from the perspective of pain avoidance, Ohio State not playing at Maryland on Saturday provided fans a scar-free silver lining — at least the Buckeyes did not lose.

For all its successes — six national championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners and the highest winning percentage in college football history — Ohio State has had its share of heartbreak. Those who followed the program through the 1970s and 1990s would say more than its fair share. 

Had the Buckeyes cashed in on even half of their realistic chances to win national titles they would be considered the unparalleled gold standard of college football. Losing the last game of the 1969, 1970, 1974, 1975 and 1979 seasons cost Ohio State at least a share of the national championship each year. Ditto for 2006 and 2007. And then there were the multiple Michigan games in the 1990s, the Michigan State upset in 1998 and last season’s late-game loss to Clemson that had Buckeye Nation suffering through winter-long darkness.

Ohio State receiver Dee Miller lies in the end zone after Michigan State's Renaldo Hill intercepted a fourth-down pass late in the fourth quarter to ensure the Spartans' 28-24 upset over the Buckeyes on Nov. 7, 1998, in Ohio Stadium.

No generation or coach has escaped the anguish. Woody Hayes, Earle Bruce, John Cooper, Jim Tressel, Urban Meyer and Ryan Day have watched championship chances slip through their fingers.

One might argue that victory tastes that much sweeter when the potential for crushing loss also rests on the tip of the tongue. Regardless, agony is as much a part of Ohio State history as ecstasy.

“I’m over it now,” said former Ohio State linebacker Bob Brudzinski, recalling No. 1 OSU’s devastating 23-10 loss to No. 11 UCLA in the 1976 Rose Bowl. “But not really.”

Similar laments pepper a long list of Buckeyes who experienced similar sadness.

Dee Miller was the intended receiver on Joe Germaine’s fourth-down pass that Michigan State defensive back Renaldo Hill intercepted in the end zone to complete the Spartans’ stunning comeback in 1998.

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“Still have scars at age 44,” Miller said. “Any time we play Michigan State. Any time I see Nick Saban. It’s just there.” 

Before becoming a coaching legend at Alabama, Saban entered Michigan State lore when the 28-point underdog Spartans scored 19 unanswered points to deep-six the Buckeyes’ national title hopes in ‘98. 

“A lot of people still say, “We would have put your team up as one of the best in Ohio State history,’ ” Miller said. “All the talent in the world. But we lose that argument because people bring up Michigan State.”

Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith is sacked by Florida's Earl Everett, middle, and Derrick Harvey during the national championship game on Jan. 8, 2007, in Glendale, Arizona.

Want more? Cover your eyes. There was Michigan State in 2015, Southern California on New Year's Day 1980, Oklahoma in 1977 and Michigan in 1969. Misery does not love that company.

Miller was watching from the sideline in 1996 when Michigan wide receiver Tai Streets scored on a 68-yard slant after OSU defensive back Shawn Springs slipped on the Ohio Stadium turf. The Buckeyes still led 9-7, but the 17-point underdog Wolverines went on to upset No. 2 Ohio State 13-9.

“It was Shawn Springs who slipped,” Miller said. “Our go-to man. Are you kidding me? Not again. This cannot be happening.”

Told that “this” kept happening just as often in the 1970s, but mostly in the Rose Bowl, Miller responded, “That makes me feel a little better now.”

Like many former players, Miller finds it almost harder to stomach tough losses now that he is distanced from competition. Players have some control over wins and losses that fans do not.

“When I started becoming a fan, the losses make you sick,” he said. “I’m in business, and when you’re playing you don’t realize that when the Buckeyes win how happy that Monday workday is. When they lose everybody mopes around. Players do, too, but it’s different. Conversations at the water cooler are not the same. It’s kind of a depressing feeling.”

Brudzinski explained how player pain is tinged with grace and forgiveness while fan pain often simmers with more sinister intent. 

“You’re never going to blame your teammate,” said Brudzinski, who played on the 1970s teams that lost back-to-back Rose Bowls to Southern California and UCLA. “Everybody makes mistakes. It might be you just got physically beat or the guy on the other team was better. You can’t play the game 100% correctly. Fans at bars think, ‘Man does that guy stink.’ But maybe that guy was supposed to get help and it’s not all his fault.”

For players, tough losses — and at Ohio State aren’t they all? — feel like a waste because of the months of hard work put in to avoid them. But there also are degrees of disappointment based on expectations and personal involvement.

Todd Boeckman explained how the BCS title game loss to Florida in January 2007 and the 2008 national championship game loss to LSU were devastating in different ways. The 2006 Buckeyes were 12-0 and considered among the best teams in college football history. Led by Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, Ohio State showed up at the Fiesta Bowl – or did not show up, as it turned out – and got drilled 41-14 by Urban Meyer’s Gators.  

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“Teddy (Ginn) ran that opening kickoff back … and we were like, ‘All right, let’s get this over.’ You can’t have that mindset,” Boeckman said.

The flight from Phoenix to Columbus was quiet. 

“What do you really say after something like that?” Boeckman wondered. 

One year later, the pain of losing 38-24 to LSU hurt just as badly but felt different both because Boeckman was the starting quarterback and because the Buckeyes had not been expected to reach the championship game, having jumped from No. 7 to No. 1 in the three weeks following a shocking 28-21 home loss to unranked Illinois.

“Nobody expected us to be there that year,” Boeckman said. “But it was definitely another quiet ride home. It’s tough when you come that far.”

You don’t have to convince Archie Griffin. In 1975, the Buckeyes defeated UCLA 41-20 on Oct. 4 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Nearly three months later, the 8-2-1 Bruins got their revenge by knocking off the 11-0 Buckeyes. 

“That’s the game that haunts me,” Griffin said. “I always felt if we won that game that Woody may have retired with a national championship.”

Ohio State center Josh Myers consoles quarterback Justin Fields after he threw an interception in the final seconds of a College Football Playoff semifinal on Dec. 28 in Glendale, Arizona.

Instead, Hayes coached three more seasons before ending his career by punching middle guard Charlie Bauman in the Gator Bowl loss to … Clemson.

Ah, yes, Clemson. Ohio State is 0-4 against the Tigers, the only team it has failed to beat in so many tries. (Florida State is next at 0-3.)

Last year’s 29-23 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal was the latest heartbreak in a history full of them.

“I’ve become a Clemson hater,” Brudzinski said, pausing. “For years I couldn’t really stand watching USC or UCLA play, either.”

The pain runs deep.   

roller@dispatch.com

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